In case you’ve missed the last couple weeks, I’m taking over some of the blogging/email duties around Story Grid headquarters as Shawn is working on some new projects. We have a lot of fun stuff coming out of Story Grid in the next few weeks. I can’t wait to share it with you!
In this week’s episode, Shawn and I continue to work through my Ending Payoff. I once again miss the mark with my scenes and we discuss the root cause. I was surprised by what was happening below the surface for me.
[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.
In this episode, we continue to dive in to the ending payoff. I went back and rewrote a few scenes and we go over them and it starts out just as a conversation about the issues and problems with the scenes and then it turns into something a little deeper as I realize some of my own fear that’s holding me back from doing my best writing.
I think this is an important episode, not just for, you know, you’re going to hear how we work through, how to solve some of the problems in the scenes but you’re also going to hear us work through some of my own fears with my writing. We delve into a lot of stuff in this episode and I think it will be really helpful so let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:02.5] TG: So Shawn, I went back and rewrote and ended up being four scenes and it’s again the first four scenes of the ending payoff of the books. You know, the beginning hook of the book is roughly 25%, the middle build is about 50% so we finished that up a few weeks ago and then now I’ve been working on, I guess it was five scenes I sent to you.
Last week we went over the first four scenes that I wrote and it was like, I kind of got some things right and kind of missed some other things. So we went back and I just rewrote the all five scenes. Some of it I left a little the same and some of them I wrote from scratch. The opening scene, real quick, I’ll just tell you kind of how I feel about it.
So I feel like I tried to write that opening scene different. We talked about having it where it kind of turned into this argument where President Marcus wouldn’t do what Randy asked and I couldn’t get there with the writing. I just wrote the scene that I sent you and then the next scene we kept the same, the next two scenes were Leila trying to get Jessie’s body back because she had died at the end of the middle build and Randy had sent her to retrieve the body.
Then the final scene I sent you, scene 48, was the scene where she wakes up. It’s Randy waking her up and it’s from her point of view though, of waking up and having this conversation with Randy about what she’s supposed to do next. More than I have been in the past, I feel very ambivalent about these scenes, I feel like it was very forced. So I don’t know how they ended up.
[0:03:01.0] SC: Right. They do feel forced, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not helpful. The big thing that’s difficult to dramatize in a really compelling way is just to talk about the hero’s journey just again because the hero’s journey, as I’ve said before, is sort of the underneath spine of the story for an arc plot.
When you have a single protagonist, like you do here, and the protagonist is having an internal movement as well as moving in an external story, which is the thriller plot that you have going here. They go through a hero’s journey and an arc moving from an ordinary world into an extraordinary world and then they have to return to the ordinary world by the end of the book.
The place we are right now — and they return with wisdom or Christopher Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey calls it, they return with the elixir. It’s what Joseph Campbell called the gift returning to the ordinary world back to our ordinary environment with a gift of experience that we can share with the community.
Your book has a really — it’s really these moments in the hero’s journey are very clear, at least in my thinking right now. What we’re struggling with is the very difficult moment, it’s the final rite of passage for the character in the hero’s journey and that’s after sort of the three tests that we put Jessie through in the middle build.
Now she’s got the final exam, it’s the big moment. What we’re feeling around here is how to get from the moment of her death, her loss of consciousness of where she’s going and what she’s doing to a renewed sense of purpose to prepare her for the final challenge. This is the moment, Vogler calls it the resurrection of the character from a metaphorical death to life.
In your case, your character is literally dead or she’s in an alternative state that only her brother, Randy, can reach her. What is really difficult is to dramatize this moment of resurrection in a unique and non-obvious way and the suggestion that I had last week, which I still stand by is to make a mini set piece of action where they have to retrieve Jessie’s body in order for Randy to actually communicate with her.
You did do that in these scenes, but they weren’t particularly exciting or innovative or compelling. But, with that said, you’ve got the structure there, the scenes, the way they’re progressing I think are relatively sound.
[0:06:33.1] TG: Okay.
[0:06:34.9] SC: I also think that the addition of President Marcus in the first scene was a very, very big leap forward. The reason why is this: when you’re trying to create conflict in a scene and you only have two people, it’s very difficult because then it becomes a “did not, did to, did not, did too”. It becomes this very shallow argument between two people.
When you add the additional third person, the stakes for conflict are much higher and we’ve talked about the idea of the hero, the villain and the victim, wow, I don’t know, a year ago? We spent a good like two or three hours on that as I recall. In a scene, it’s great to have three people because those three people can play those three roles and they can alternate the roles.
So when you brought in Marcus, the reader’s interested to see how this power dynamic is going to work. Randy is literally being held captive, so he’s a victim. Leila is also a victim because she was cast away to the numbered but we don’t know that yet. President Marcus is a victim too because he’s down to only two teams for the threshing.
This is all kind of very interesting to start and then as villains go, Marcus is definitely a villain, Randy, we’re not really sure if he’s a villain yet but we could definitely see his potential for being a villain and same thing with Leila who will turn out to be 83 later on. Heroic moments, those three all have the ability to be heroes as well.
So the dynamic that you set up in the scene is terrific and the inter play is good, you’re using exposition as ammunition. I have to tell you though, it did feel a little forced, it felt as if you were trying to jam in information about Randy’s being held captive a little bit heavy, it was heavy handed.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t do that, it’s just bringing it down and doing it more artfully. I love it when you do things like well you’re not going to like what I need you to do and then you cut the scene.
[0:09:02.7] TG: See, I feel like that’s like too cliché.
[0:09:06.5] SC: No, it’s not. Because what was cliché was the way she got the body, it was sort of following in an elevator and the guards are pushing a cart. Oh, Lo and behold, she’s not on that cart. I mean, you did — it’s a workable scene, there are progressive complications, you abide the five commandments in the scene as far as I can remember but it just felt like, “Oh I’ve seen this scene before a million times.”
[0:09:39.8] TG: See, that was my way of trying to not to progressively complicate her even getting the body back was like, following the wrong path the first time.
[0:09:51.0] SC: Yeah, that’s sort of cheap surprise in a way and you can do cheap surprise in a thriller, but you can only do it once. I think this is not the moment to have cheap surprise. This has to be literally, almost literally pulling her out of the fire.
[0:10:09.8] TG: Okay. Did I not build the tension enough then?
[0:10:18.1] SC: You’re just signaling, you’re telling the reader far too early what kind of scene this is by the choices you’re making in the setup. When we have, I mean, the other thing that you would want is to somehow use some other characters in the situation because following one person on a mission is very limiting in what can happen.
Either she’s going to succeed or she’s going to fail and if you have more than one, say if you brought back Alex or Ernst to be recruited by Leila to help do this or somebody else, then you’re dealing with two people trying to negotiate a plan with a lot of people trying to stop them.
[0:11:10.3] TG: The other thing I felt afterwards…
[0:11:12.3] SC: And again, you don’t have to have a scene where she goes to Ernst’s room, knocks on the door, says, “Hi, I’m Leila and I worked with the thing and would you be interested in helping me get the,” — you just go to the scene, you just cut to the scene and you’ve let the reader, “Oh, she must have had that meeting with,” you know what I’m saying? Don’t do the shoe leather scenes because the redder will fill in those blanks for you in a way that’s much more interesting than you trying to do them.
[0:11:48.3] TG: So the other thing I thought about that didn’t work is there was not much irreversibility to it. I was wondering, I was planning on making it a little more violent where she has to like take some people out some way to get the body back and I was wondering if I should have gone further down that path where if she, the only reason that she doesn’t get destroyed by President Marcus because of everything she did to get the body is the fact that she came back. If she didn’t come back, she would have been really screwed. Should I go further down that path?
[0:12:28.8] SC: Well, what you have working for you that you’ve completely forgotten about is the element of the clock. You could setup something where Randy says you need to get the body in this place at this time. If you do, I can get inside her brain and resurrect her. Now, this is all information that he gives her after he says, “You’re not going to like what I’m going to ask you to do.”
So her goal is to get Jessie back into some sort of severing room, operation room where they can put the jack into the back of her skull. She needs to have the jack in the back of her head in order for Randy to talk to her. You have this great element where you could have somehow Leila gets her into the room, people are chasing her, she knows all she has to do is get that thing into Jessie, into the back of Jessie’s head, Randy will be able to resurrect her and all will be well.
Of course, that doesn’t happen. She gets into the room thinking that the minute she plugs Jessie in, she’s going to wake up. So she’s waiting there and there’s people chasing her, she finally gets to the room, it’s almost like somebody who is trying to defuse a bomb. Once they defuse the bomb, all bets are off and everything’s fine again. We need to make Jessie’s awakening be really surprising and look, the reader’s going to know that she’s going to wake up.
[0:14:14.6] TG: Right.
[0:14:16.8] SC: So we have to deliver a scene that is surprising in the way that she wakes up because they know that this novel cannot end with her living in oblivion. Obviously, this is a very important scene to figure out because if you can really get the reader to go, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t see that coming,” then it will propel the story into the ending payoff.
Some other limitations of the first scene between Leila and Randy and Marcus is that they give away the ending payoff. They’re saying, “Look, we only have two teams for the threshing, what are we going to do?” That works to a degree but it’s veering towards, “Oh my gosh, now I just know how the rest of this thing is going to play out, there’s going to be a big action scene at the end, which will be moderately interesting and that will be it.” That’s what we want to avoid. I’m not trying to make you feel bad or…
[0:14:16.8] TG: No.
[0:15:27.7] SC: This is hard work, it’s not as easy as coming up with crazy weird ideas for the beginning hook that you’ll go, “Oh well I can figure that out later and I can pay that off later.” One of the things you can do here is think about, is there an Easter egg that I planted at the beginning of my story that I can whip out now and surprise the reader?
You have a couple, right? You had that weird sort of Jabba the hut figure who speaks in riddles who Jessie spoke to in order to figure out her first severing. You’ve got those little rats that were her friends way back. Now, wouldn’t it be interesting to bring some plot element from either one of those two sources and have it reengaged here?
It also could be — here’s an idea, her former mentor who helped her solve the problem in the first mentoring was in fact Randy. Randy isn’t the one who resurrects her, it’s that former mentor and Randy is playing that part because he doesn’t, for whatever reason, it’s more important to Randy to keep his motives and what he wants as secret as long as possible. So when Jessie wakes up, she doesn’t believe that she has been awoken by Randy, she believes that she’s been awoken by that biblical figure from 19 chapters ago.
[0:17:12.7] TG: Right.
[0:17:13.6] SC: Then the reader will go, “Oh right, I forgot about that guy, I wonder what he’s going to do in the end? Maybe Leila, you can do the big reveal that Leila is actually 83 by having her cohorts be two of the rats from the very beginning of the story, or something like that. You can see what I’m doing; you want to be able to add in things that are mysterious and intriguing to the readers so that they don’t, their mind doesn’t tumble down your plot points and figure out your ending before you want them to.
You could hold back all that information about — you can still have Randy, you can still have that same with Randy, Leila and the President but tone down just kind of have Randy have the president over our barrel. He does, and you do do that and the president does agree to allow Randy to have access to the teams. I wouldn’t suggest that Randy is going to get Jessie awake. I would say Randy believes she’s dead too and have the reader believe that Randy believes that.
[0:18:34.0] TG: Okay.
[0:18:36.0] SC: It will seem as if Randy is as surprised of Jessie’s awakening as everybody else. Now, he’s already worked out a deal with the president so that he can do the final training with Leila. He could do all that, “Hey Jessie, won’t it be great when we get home and help mom and dad,” he can do that later on.
I’m just throwing things out here to try and complicate the story in a way that will propel us into the ending payoff and the big reveal is that, you know, Randy has sort of set this up from the very beginning, he was using a sister in order to get his revenge, get his escape and for him to take over the faction. Is that correct?
[0:19:27.8] TG: Yeah. I think…
[0:19:31.0] SC: Have you dissociated? Are you in another place now?
[0:19:35.7] TG: Yeah, I’m trying to wrap my head around it and I realized like there’s been this voice in my head that I finally — while you were talking, I realized I’ve been listening to, which is don’t make this too exciting because you still don’t know what you’re doing for the threshing and if you make this too exciting, you have to beat it, again.
[0:19:58.6] SC: Right.
[0:20:02.1] TG: Because as you’re talking about making this more exciting or interesting or compelling or whatever the word you want to use, I keep wanting to pull back.
[0:20:12.1] SC: Well that’s interesting that you’re recognizing that because that is a battle that every writer goes through and a lot of writers just never recognize that battle and they end up really hurting their work because they don’t see that they’re their own worst enemy and the fear of delivering too much excitement to soon, just you got to do it, you got to say, “I’ve got to just ratchet this up some more,” and you’re absolutely right when you said. I’m worried about the irreversibility of this progressive complications. Because, you know, we’re really at the final punch of this plot.
[0:20:59.9] TG: Yeah, every decision needs to be irreversible at this point. There’s very little irreversibility of what’s happening.
[0:21:08.9] SC: Right. So you actually figured out your story problem without me at all. That’s also great too. Say to yourself, “Okay, that’s totally fair that you don’t want to make this too exciting because you’re worried about paying off the, final but so what?”
[0:21:29.1] TG: Ever since I came up with that game for the third test, for the third severing and it took me two weeks to come up with that idea that I’m like, “I’ve got no more ideas.” I still have no idea what I’m doing for the threshing and so the idea of ratcheting it up even more so then the threshing has to be even bigger and better. It honestly, did you ever watch the show 24?
[0:22:01.1] SC: No.
[0:22:03.4] TG: Just super action thriller TV show and that was one of those like, every time they would do something, I would think, “I don’t know how this could get any worse.” I remember thinking, remember that book Worm, I don’t know if we’ve talked about it on the show but it’s like this super long online book.
[0:22:20.8] SC: Oh yeah, you told me about that.
[0:22:24.2] TG: I was reading that the same way because it’s like, 1.7 million words this book is and like something would happen and I’m like, “I can’t imagine it getting any worse,” but I’m only like 18% through the book, you know? Then it would get worse and I’m like, “How did the author even come up with this? This is crazy.” I don’t think I can actually come up with something like that.
[0:22:48.3] SC: Look at it this way, you came up with the Go game, you came up with the moment of — I think that the reader is going to believe that the third severing is going to be an incredible physical challenge and you zigged and you made it a mental challenge and you’re going to make some tweaks to the scenes to make that even more shocking.
[0:23:13.1] TG: Right.
[0:23:13.9] SC: But that was a really great decision and so, you have to trust yourself that you’re going to be able to figure out how to make the threshing itself really interesting. The other thing to do if you get lost is to go to those major climactic scenes of the classic stories that you find so compelling. The fact is that the Worm guy, what’s his name who wrote has a pen name right?
[0:23:45.1] TG: Yeah, I forgot. It’s his online handle.
[0:23:48.8] SC: Right.
[0:23:49.7] TG: Forgot, I’ll have it in just a second.
[0:23:52.5] SC: Yeah, we should definitely credit the guy because anyone who can write a 1.7 million word epic story and get people just churning through it as quickly as they do, really knows how to tell a story.
[0:24:09.8] TG: Yeah, his online handle is Wildbow.
[0:24:15.4] SC: Right.
[0:24:16.4] TG: I forgot his real name. What I’ll do is I’ll link to it in the show notes, I’ll link to the book. It is one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve ever had so if you’re into that, I would definitely go back and read the whole thing and I’ll link to it in the show notes.
[0:24:32.3] SC: Yeah, I can understand your reluctance to go for broke at this very moment but we need to go for broke because we need to surprise the reader, a number of people who have been following the podcast has said a lot of times to me, in emails and comments that, “Oh, it’s so obvious that the brother’s alive. It’s so obvious that she’s going to resurrect herself.”
To a degree, that’s true but when you’re locked in to a really compelling story, you don’t as a reader think that far in advance if the scene by scene work is so strong that you’re constantly being surprised. We have to understand that people believing that she’s going to come back to life is absolutely true. They, who is ever reading this novel is going to say to themselves, “Well, she has to come back for that final climactic battle.”
Now what’s going to keep them reading is then saying to themselves, “I wonder how he’s going to do that?” So use that as your challenge instead of, “I got to get this scene over with so I can really churn onto the threshing thing.” How is he going to do that? How is he going to surprise me? How is he going to resurrect this girl? How is going to get the body, how is he going to make this a really amazing active moment that is irreversible too?
That is the problem that you need to solve right now. The problem, the threshing is not a problem that you need to solve right now. So don’t worry about a problem that you don’t need to solve yet. That’s my biggest advice is that we always get ahead of ourselves and we want to fix the problems in the future when we’ve got plenty to deal with right this very moment.
[0:26:35.9] TG: All right.
[0:26:37.3] SC: It’s sort of like, you’ve got, it’s like the sink in your kitchen just blew up and you’ve got water shooting over your kitchen, are you going to worry about your roof? No, you’re going to fix the sink before you call the roofer to fix the hole in your roof.
When you look at writing in those terms, you can stop yourself from making mistakes and writing — one of the things that first attracted you to Story Grid was, you hate wasting words. You hate dumping, throwing out 60,000 word manuscript because you didn’t know the principles of storytelling.
This is a really critical moment and a lesson that I’m certainly going to convey to other people in the future is, don’t solve act three, know where you’re going. I’m not saying don’t have a plot outline, I’m not saying fly by the seat of your pants.
What I’m saying is, get a general idea of where you need to go, you know that you are going to have a climactic scene that’s called the threshing at the end of your novel, great, terrific. Don’t worry about that when you also know “right now, I need to surprise the reader about how Jessie is going to come back to life”.
Is it getting her out of the incinerator? Maybe, maybe not? In fact, she goes in the incinerator, who knows? You’ve got to think of what is the equivalent of that Go game for this scene? Can I churn on this setup of this scene, can I use things that are planted before, can I establish character using action in this scene that will reveal things about people that are surprising?
This is the fun part for me too, because as an editor, I like to churn on this stuff too and a lot of times I just pump out idea after idea that doesn’t work. It will get you to think in that arena. The problem that must be solved here is, how do I get Jessie resurrected in a way that is surprising, that the reader will not see coming? And I don’t think it’s having a conversation in the nether world with Randy.
[0:29:12.7] TG: It needs to be more like action instead of?
[0:29:18.2] SC: Yeah and also think about who would be interesting to save her body? Maybe is Az, maybe it’s Ernst, maybe it’s Alex, maybe it’s that nasty colonel, maybe it’s the president? There’s no reason why you can’t try something completely off the wall because each one of these people wants Jessie to survive because you know why? None of them wants to fight that battle. Think about it, there is a dragon at the end of this novel that has to be slain, who wants to do it?
I wouldn’t want to do it. Do you think Az wants to do it? No, he just wants to be there when somebody else kills the dragon and President Marcus can’t go. He’s not going to do it. Everybody has been relying upon this poor girl and now she’s gone. So every single person in this novel is going to be motivated to try and resurrect her so that she’ll go kill the dragon because none of them want to do it. So that works. That gives you the freedom as the writer to use whatever character that is in this world to join together to get her conscious again.
It’s the kind of thing where a rumor could start. The rumor is, “You know I heard that she once woke up after a thing. Well let’s get her body.” Again, these are bad ideas that I am pumping out but they’re trying to elicit in the writer, you, alternatives just to allow yourself as the writer the freedom to forget about all of the internal rules that you have been building up in your own mind. Like, “Oh Az would never do that.” So you don’t even consider Az as possibility to be the critical player that gets her alive again.
Whereas in reality, he’s very motivated to get her alive again because he’s in deep trouble. Who wouldn’t want her to go fight the dragon? That’s an interesting idea, maybe it’s Randy. Maybe he set up this whole thing so that she will die and that they lose the threshing and then he will be released and then he can have a counter power struggle with Marcus to take over that part of the world. That’s a possibility. Think about who wants her to fight the dragon and who wouldn’t want her to fight the dragon and why.
These are ways to solve this critical problem of resurrecting her in an interesting, innovative way that is going to make the reader say, “I never saw that coming. Oh my gosh, I knew she was going to have to wake up but that way?” It’s sort of like that moment in the middle build in the very first severing when we talked about her purposely trying to lose and just shutting down the game so that she can get thrown out of the program and go home. I think, maybe I am kidding myself her, but I think that is going to be a surprise to a reader who has not listened to this 70 hours that we have talked about this thing.
[0:32:51.3] TG: Yeah.
[0:32:52.8] SC: And there’s plenty of people out there who haven’t listened to this 70 hours so I think we are in good shape.
[0:32:58.7] TG: Oh.
[0:32:59.9] SC: Now the other strategy is that if you are absolutely crazily obsessed about the threshing scene is to take a crack at it or…
[0:33:11.7] TG: That just makes me want to puke.
[0:33:13.9] SC: Okay then.
[0:33:15.2] TG: Like, the more I think about it the more I’m like, I don’t even know where to start in coming up with a solution for that and so this feels like something I can solve. Although, because now when you are saying — I have these moments like right now where I am like, “Who is listening to this and why do they find it interesting?” Because it’s mostly me just saying “um” a lot. There you go. So I have this thought of, “Well if everybody wants her to be alive,” — because now as you listed out all the people, well pretty much everybody wants her to be alive, there would be no conflict around doing something with her body. Why would anybody try to stop anybody from doing something with the body?
[0:34:05.9] SC: That’s correct.
[0:34:07.0] TG: So then the whole thing of body snatching the thing seems dumb because it would be like a kid that has a broken toy and somebody wants it. It’s like, “All right take it. You know I don’t want it. It’s broken.” So.
[0:34:23.5] SC: That’s right that’s why the scene rings false.
[0:34:26.9] TG: But then it takes out all of the conflict though.
[0:34:28.6] SC: If you look at the other way — this is proving to be interesting. If you look at it the other way then the person who wants her to stay dead is the villain, right?
[0:34:42.6] TG: So the whole set up could be — would be Randy wanted her dead from the beginning like he wanted to set her up as the hope and then take her out so that he would put President Marcus in a really, really bad position.
[0:35:00.1] SC: Right or I am just thinking off the top of my head or he could be setting it up so that they need to bring him out of retirement to go into the threshing again.
[0:35:11.6] TG: What if in the conversation President Marcus…
[0:35:13.7] SC: Right, is there a rule that says he can’t go back and be one of the team leaders in the threshing again?
[0:35:22.7] TG: Well, I mean if there is I can rewrite the book to not have one. I mean…
[0:35:27.7] SC: There isn’t, he could be…
[0:35:29.9] TG: Well I had it in my head that that was a rule, but then why would they go through all of these stuff and not just make him the guy again anyway from the beginning?
[0:35:41.2] SC: Right.
[0:35:42.3] TG: Why go through this whole charade of keeping them locked up if they would just reuse them again?
[0:35:48.0] SC: Well, from the previous work that I’ve read it seemed that Marcus recognized him as a political threat to his power because he did not know and nor did he reveal how he won the previous threshing.
[0:36:04.7] TG: Right, so he’s kept him locked up to keep power. So maybe in the conversation, Marcus agrees to let Randy go and then before they can is when Jessie comes back and so it ruins Randy’s freedom that she comes back.
[0:36:23.8] SC: That’s correct, that could work.
[0:36:26.1] TG: So then the conflict comes from Randy sends Leila to stop people from getting her.
[0:36:34.5] SC: Right, to literally.
[0:36:36.2] TG: Get her, it’s her job to put her in the incinerator.
[0:36:39.4] SC: Yeah.
[0:36:39.7] TG: And he makes up some story about “I can’t let them have her body so we need to get rid of it,” because I still want Leila to be a good guy.
[0:36:48.6] SC: Right.
[0:36:49.6] TG: So then it becomes a race for somebody else to save the body from Leila because…
[0:36:59.0] SC: That would work.
[0:37:00.7] TG: Because when you said that about everybody wants her alive, I realized that there’s no conflict.
[0:37:07.5] SC: That’s right. You know, the other great way to really hammer that home is to have one of the characters explain that to the reader in a discussion. Like Marcus could say, “Everybody wants her alive,” so that it doesn’t get too — you have to subtly let the reader know the person who tries to dispose of her body, who plots to do it is the villain because everybody else wants her to survive and you could have even Leila say, “Look, who really wants to fight the dragon? I mean, the only one who wants the threshing is you Randy and you can’t go in because you are, blank, blank, blank because of the rules.”
So we might be talking around this problem in a way that is complicating it beyond the internal logic of the story but my gut is telling me that we are getting closer to a surprising solution to the dilemma and maybe it’s not an incinerator that puts her — I don’t know. But this is the problem. This is the central problem that is stalling the story because we need to firmly understand the crisis moment that Jessie is going to face on the threshing.
So it’s almost like we want a level of, like in the Silence of the Lambs we know, the reader knows that Clarice Starling has entered the belly of the beast when she knocks on that door in Pittsburg and the moths are flying around. We know that she is going into the lair of Buffalo Bill, and she doesn’t know it. This is called dramatic irony when the reader has more information than the protagonist. If we can establish that dynamic in the threshing where the reader has more information than Jessie, then we create tremendous suspense about how is she going to triumph?
Now in Silence of the Lambs what Thomas Harris did was he planted the information necessary for Starling to survive very, very early on in the book and it’s a moment when Hannibal Lecter, who is the vehicle that teaches Starling how to survive in an evil world. He tells Starling that schizophrenics have a particular smell. They smell like goat because their pheromones emit a goat like smell when they are running or excited and he also establishes that Starling is the best shot of all the recruits. She wins all of the shooting contests. She’s an amazing shooter so the climactic moment, and we don’t know this as the reader, all we know is Starling is going into the lair of Buffalo Bill. He’s turned off all of the lights in the basement and he puts on infrared glasses so he can see and she can’t.
So as the reader, we’re standing there and saying, “Starling please no, don’t do that!” and we know that Buffalo Bill is enjoying it. He’s watching her stumble around in the corner and she smells that he’s present but she can’t see where he is. So the goat smell is helping her. She knows he’s in the room with her and then she hears the click of him loading the shot in the gun. So she hears this very subtle click, she bangs, she hears it, she smells it, she shoots him in the dark and kills him.
Now all of that information that gave her that gift and that ability was set up much earlier on in the novel. We want to create a dramatically ironic situation in the threshing itself. What I mean by dramatically ironic is that we want the reader to have the information that Jessie does not have and so when she goes into that, we are just at our wits end hoping to God that she will pull through in some extraordinary way.
So what we need to do now in these scenes is to give the reader the information, because Jessie’s dead, that Jessie will not have when she goes into the threshing. So part of what that is, is revealing or giving a very clear indication of who the real villain is and what they want and how they’re going to get it and why they set her up. So probably the way to explain that is to establish if somebody has to say, “Whoever tries to destroy her body is the person who is trying to destroy the faction,” something of that nature. Do you know where I’m going? I feel like I might have lost you a while back when I was talking about dramatic irony.
[0:42:41.4] TG: No, in the past when I have solved problems I’ve taken all of the stuff you’ve said and let it marinate for a little bit and I come up with something. So I am not trying to pressure myself to come up with something but I am just listening and thinking because it’s like…
[0:43:00.4] SC: Okay because I am talking and I am thinking it through too and using dramatic irony, like if you have dramatic irony in your middle build or your beginning hook it often doesn’t work but it is great to have it in the ending payoff because if somebody said to you, “Oh you won’t believe the climactic moment in the Silence of the Lambs,” you go, “Really? What is it?” “Oh the lead character kills the bad guy,” right? Because that’s what happens. Starling kills the bad guy, the end.
That doesn’t sound very good but it was what Thomas Harris did to get to that scene was extraordinary amount of work and so by the time we got to the scene, as the reader, we had so much information that it was just excruciating to read that scene but we couldn’t help ourselves because it was so well crafted. So that’s an answer to the question of, “Well everybody’s going to know she’s going to come back to life.”
Well everybody knows that Starling is going to kill Buffalo Bill at the end of the novel because if Buffalo Bill wins at the end of The Silence of the Lambs nobody is going to like that book. Nobody is going to talk about that book. Nobody likes it when evil wins. It’s not a very good commercially appealing message. Evil wins when we try and overcome it. That’s the controlling idea of that novel and nobody wants to buy that novel, right?
We overcome evil when we find the truth in our own selves and I spent months delineating and going through The Silence of the Lambs and it’s in my book so I am not going to try and do it right now here in five seconds. But you get my point, is that when we build up these big moments at the end of the novel as our climactic moment of the entire novel, we can often lose sight that the simple thing is Jessie gets in a fight and she wins.
That’s the end of the novel but how she gets into that fight and how she wins is what’s going to compel people to get to the end of the novel. This is a critical moment in the story to set up that big payoff at the end. This is why I was talking earlier about thinking about little Easter eggs that you drop earlier on like that weird guy with the weird advice and the rats and the note, what was that note that she left? What note did Jessie leave underneath that stone all the way back at the beginning of the novel? What’s been going on behind the scenes off stage that you could perhaps fabricate into a very critical moment right here?
[0:45:55.8] TG: So would one way to look at this be should I think about tipping my hand and showing the reader that Randy is the bad guy in these scenes, but Jessie doesn’t know it yet when she comes back?
[0:46:08.6] SC: That’s possible. That’s a possibility.
[0:46:10.8] TG: So then as he gives her information to act on we’re screaming, “No, no, no!”
[0:46:16.7] SC: That’s possible and she wants to believe him with all of her heart but in the critical moment in the climactic threshing something clicks in her brain and she says, “Holy guacamole! My brother is the one who’s been using me this entire time. How am I going to get out of this? What’s the best bad choice? What’s the best bad choice for me that will safeguard other people? How do I get out of this situation with the least amount of damage to the rest of the world?”
Because if she loses the threshing, not only does she suffer but so does Alex and Ernst and so does the entire numbered and the entire community from where she came. So yeah, this is deep hard work right now but I think we’re peeling back all of the baloney to find the critical problems that must be solved in order to kick us into the ending payoff and I think using the concept of dramatic irony — the other thing that you have to remember, Tim, is that she’s in a nether world.
So it’s perfectly reasonable for information to come to the fore while she’s dead. That she’s not going to know about but everybody else takes for granted. Like in The Silence of the Lambs, there’s a great red herring where the FBI says, “Oh don’t worry about it Starling, we’ve got our man, he’s in Chicago,” and so she says to herself, “Oh geez, they’ve got him. I’ve gotten all the way to Ohio, oh no what am I going to do?” and she says, “Oh well I’m just going to keep going on the trail.”
It’s a critical moment where she could have quit but she said, “I’m here. I’m going to interview this weird guy,” who is her sewing pal and when she knocks on that door, we know that’s the guy who killed her because of all the other clues that were set up by Harris throughout the novel and so what we’re trying to create is that moment in the threshing when Jessie is standing there with her sword and somebody says something and the reader tumbles back to all these little things that have been adding up and it clicks for her too.
Because when Starling sees those moths in the guy’s house, she knows this guy is the killer and that’s when she takes out her gun and says, “You’re under arrest,” and he runs in the basement. So we need to have set up that critical moment when Jessie sees the moths and it bang, “Oh my gosh my brother is the bad guy. I’ve got to get my brother out. I’ve got to bring my brother to justice,” or whatever.
So the critical problem we are trying to solve now is how do we make it interesting when Jessie comes back to life? And one of the things that we figured out is everybody would love it if she was alive so we need to find and reveal the one person who does not want her to live and why and Randy is our guy.
[0:49:40.4] TG: You know maybe I let them wake him up and he goes and tries to get rid of the body and gets stopped in the process somehow like he knows that body is sitting somewhere and she’s going to wake up if he doesn’t go and get her because if he sends somebody, it will tip the hand to that. That person will now know that Randy is the bad guy.
[0:50:03.1] SC: Well also that the advantage of that idea is that the reader is going to believe that Randy escapes his prison in order to save his sister’s life and instead, he goes there and tries to kill her but he’s stopped at the last minute by somebody, Ernst or Alex maybe or Az and Az goes, “Hey man, what are you doing?”
So it’s a great moment because we’d think, “Oh I know this. Randy is going to escape. He’s going to go save her. He’s going to resurrect her.” And then instead Randy escapes, goes to her and tries to destroy her body, tries to kill her, you know, destroy whatever ability she has to resurrect. That would be surprising and I could see why you didn’t want to write that scene because where do you go from there?
[0:50:59.6] TG: Yeah, well I mean I didn’t think of that scene but I was cutting…
[0:51:04.2] SC: Well that could work.
[0:51:05.6] TG: All right, so I am going rewrite these scenes again.
[0:51:10.3] SC: And he can extract that ability to get out of his thing in much the same way that he does now by blackmailing Marcus and saying, “Look if you don’t free me to help these two stooges who are going to be in the threshing, we have no chance at all.”
[0:51:30.4] TG: Right so that’s where I am thinking that scene will turn into he wins the argument and gets let go and the first thing he does…
[0:51:38.4] SC: Right, you could do a really fun thing where you go, “Okay, well you are limited to the following hours. You have access to the threshing training facility from 6 o’clock in the morning. You will be under constant supervision” blah, blah, blah like there’s some limitations or whatever.
[0:52:02.6] TG: Well and then the scene, it could be a fun scene where I set it up that he’s going to get her body to mourn over her and then she twitches and he shoves her hand underneath her and takes her to the incinerator whatever I come up with.
[0:52:18.8] SC: Yeah.
[0:52:19.5] TG: And so then it starts to dawn on you that he is trying to get rid of her before she wakes up.
[0:52:25.7] SC: Right.
[0:52:26.2] TG: And then I’ve got to figure out an interesting way to stop him without actually him getting caught so that nobody else knows, including Jessie, that he was the one trying to kill her or that he was trying to kill her. So then she doesn’t need to wake up in an interesting — because what I’ve been stuck on too, is that how do you make somebody wake up in an interesting way?
[0:52:48.0] SC: No, it’s when she wakes up that’s going to be interesting.
[0:52:52.0] TG: Okay.
[0:52:53.1] SC: Not how. She’s just going to wake up.
[0:52:56.5] TG: Right, yeah. Well I kept — well how, I mean there’s only one way to wake up. You just wake up. So how do you make that interesting? So then it becomes about the timing of when she starts to wake up and he is in a rush because he knows she could wake up. So what I’ll do is set that up from the beginning of the first scene where he’s pushing hard to get out because he’s got to get out to get rid of her.
[0:53:24.5] SC: Yeah.
[0:53:24.9] TG: Okay, so I’ll work on that. I keep thinking like, “We’ll be done with this in April with the first draft,” and I am thinking it’s not going to be done in April. But that’s fine or something. Okay, so I will work on that and come up with something on that and then we’ll go over that in the next episode.
[0:53:52.9] SC: Okay, sounds good.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:53:54.2] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, checkout storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe, and man are there things coming up that you will not want to miss! So if you want to make sure that you know everything going on, make sure you sign up for the newsletter at storygrid.com.
If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us, you could find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review.
Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.
Share this Article:
Sign up below and we'll immediately send you a coupon code to get any Story Grid title - print, ebook or audiobook - for free.(Browse all the Story Grid titles)